Saudi Arabia: a land of closed borders, keyhole solutions, or both?

I don’t often think of Saudi Arabia as a country I’d particularly like to migrate to, which is why I’ve always found it surprising how popular Saudi Arabia is in polling data on migration. For instance, a recent Gallup poll put Saudi Arabia as the 5th-most desired destination migration country in the world, projecting that 29 million people would permanently settle in Saudi Arabia if they could.

My initial reaction was to surmise that perhaps Saudi Arabia’s status as a cultural or religious beacon in the Muslim and/or Arab worlds accounts for this. It’s also worth noting that millions of Muslims from around the world descend on Saudi Arabia for the Muslim haj or umrah every year. It’s not difficult to imagine that some of them might want to retire and die in the land of their prophet, or just fall in love with the country from their visit there.

However, some recent news from the BBC has made me rethink this hypothesis a little: apparently Saudi Arabia is copying the US and Israel in constructing a 1,800km long border wall that will seal it off from Yemen. Unlike the US, Saudi Arabia actually has legitimate reasons to fear that terrorists will cross the border here: a destabilising situation in Yemen has reportedly allowed al-Qaeda to thrive there. But according to the BBC, security is not the whole story:

Border security has dramatically worsened in the aftermath of the revolution, as thousands of illegal immigrants, drug smugglers and gun runners try to slip from impoverished Yemen into Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s richest countries, Lt al-Ahmari told the BBC’s Frank Gardner.

Five Saudi border guards had recently been killed along the border in shoot-outs with well-armed smugglers, he added.

The first part of the fence has already been built on the coast, slowing down – but not stopping – the tide of illegal immigrants.

It seems a bit disturbing to me to characterise economic migrants or refugees fleeing war and terrorism in the same boat with “drug smugglers and gun runners”. If all they have in common is that they’ve crossed an arbitrary line in the map, what purpose does this serve? Are we now to classify high school students and cyberterrorists in the same bucket because they both violate intellectual property laws with their online activity?

The “one of the world’s richest countries” certainly gives one pause at the suggestion that security against terrorism is all there is to this. There are plenty of rich oil-producing countries in the Middle East — so it does puzzle me that, say, the United Arab Emirates don’t pop up as much in Gallup’s polling. But perhaps the reason Saudi Arabia is popular with prospective unauthorised immigrants is because of its long land borders which can be easily crossed. Saudi Arabia also has an extensive guest worker programme which I suppose further spreads word of the economic opportunities there.

I am curious to find out more about immigration to Saudi Arabia. There are plenty of questions which come to mind:

  1. What accounts for its unusual popularity on the list of prospective immigrant destinations? All the other countries which top the list are developed Western democracies.

  2. What kinds of immigration programmes does Saudi Arabia have? They recently gave unauthorised immigrants a 3-month amnesty to either leave or regularise their status, but otherwise it is unclear to me how their programmes operate, though I do know that they have millions of guest workers.
  3. What is the status of unauthorised immigration in Saudi Arabia? If it is true that 10% of the 2 million annual pilgrims overstay their visas each year, there could be millions working and residing without permission in Saudi Arabia (indeed, it looks like some have settled there permanently).
  4. How does Saudi Arabia handle permanent residency versus nationality? Has it successfully decoupled the two concepts? Some anecdotal evidence suggests that perhaps it has. Some might term this a keyhole solution. Although I am not happy about the idea of someone spending their entire life in a country and yet being unable to claim citizenship there, if Saudi Arabia does easily grant residency while more tightly controlling citizenship, this is actually much more civilised and moral than the alternative in much of the “civilised world,” which is to deny most human beings both residency and citizenship.

I am not sure whether the Yemeni border wall is justified. But whether it is or not, it is sad to think that those fleeing war, oppression, or economic collapse will be the ones who suffer the most. Drug smugglers and gun runners have the resources to find another way in or out. Regular people don’t have those resources. In principle, under international law, the borders are open for refugees. But in practice, it’s a different story. It is sad to think that there are millions of innocent people, who through no fault of their own, will remain trapped in a country wracked with conflict, having nowhere to go.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.


2 thoughts on “Saudi Arabia: a land of closed borders, keyhole solutions, or both?”

  1. Hmmm, this mention of Saudi Arabia has got me thinking. One of the fears of restrictionists is immigrants from authoritarian countries bringing their authoritarian ideals to free countries. But remembering that immigrants are self-selecting then maybe having rich and authoritarian countries like Saudi could divert those anti-liberty immigrants to countries like that. Thus the political externalities problem maybe be even less of an issue than I previously suspected.

    1. It does also mean, though, that we need to explore feasible ways to get countries beyond the OECD to open their borders. It is a legitimate concern that, even if eventually we are able to convince the entire world that open borders is morally right, that different societies will reach this conclusion at different times, and that Western democracies will be the first to understand this. (It does not seem a controversial proposition to me that Iran and Saudi Arabia will find it easier to shoot immigrants than the US or Australia.)

      In general though I differentiate between the end goal (freedom of movement) and how we achieve this. I am fine with keyhole solutions, even blunt instruments like quotas, as waystations on the way to eventual open borders. Restrictionist concerns like political externalities are to a degree legitimate when assuming a magical imposition of open borders overnight (especially an imposition of them on only one country, like the US, or a few countries). But given that such a magical imposition will not ever happen, to me the appropriate debate is about how far we can realistically open the borders.

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